Like many students taking physics classes, Kalhaku McLester welcomes the opportunity to visit the Physics Clinic, a room in the Physics Building where students actively engage with teaching assistants, faculty and classmates. It’s a place for interactive learning about such topics as the scientific method and conservation of momentum. Collaborators work out equations on whiteboards, tackle homework questions and prepare for tests. McLester, a part-time undergraduate pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, is taking General Physics I: Mechanics (Physics 211) and General Physics Lab I (Physics 221) this semester. “The Physics Clinic provides the instant feedback I require to know I’m heading in the right direction with my studying,” he says. “It also allows me to make corrections on my homework rather than just running blind and not grasping the concepts.”
When Syracuse University shifted to online learning after spring break, the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences didn’t skip a beat in re-establishing the popular offering as the Virtual Physics Clinic. “I’m super proud of the physics department,” says Professor Jenny Ross, co-chair of the department. “Everyone has really stepped up, and we’ve been hearing from our students that they’re impressed with how good the continuity has been for their courses.”
Ross trained upwards of 30 physics teaching assistants (TAs) during spring break to prepare them for the challenges of remote teaching and set up a Zoom meeting space to host the virtual clinic. Students can visit from 1-7 p.m. EST weekdays for help. The virtual space is staffed by a host TA, with additional TAs assigned to breakout discussion rooms. “It’s surprisingly transferable from the in-person clinic,” Ross says. “When new students come in, the TAs ask the student what class they’re working on and if there are other students they’d like to work with. Then they set up virtual breakout rooms where they can work as they would in the clinic. The students get to be together, and the additional TAs go into those rooms and help them.”
Tammy Beltran ’20, a natural resources management major at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry , regularly heads to the virtual clinic after her Physics 211 class meeting to review lecture notes and keep up with the material. “Most of the material is brand new information to me, so I’m grateful for the TAs in the clinic explaining the concepts from scratch,” Beltran says. “I usually share my screen to show pictures of my homework answers so the TAs can check them or help me walk through them. The TAs are amazing and try their best to help online in the same way they do in person. This was the class I was the most worried about, but it’s been the best transition to online learning for me.”
Lisa Li ’23 is also a Physics 211 student this semester. She enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences as an English major on the film studies track and added physics as a major after taking an astronomy course. “The astronomy class encouraged me to find my confidence in physics, to think deeply and thoroughly, to ask questions and seek answers on a brand-new perspective,” she says. “With physics, I can see and interpret the world through the lens of science.”
Li acknowledges that online work can pose challenges to learning and study routines, but the Virtual Physics Clinic “solved this problem,” she says. “Everyone in the clinic, whether they’re teachers or students, is willing to share thoughts with me and help me improve my classwork. Our instructors are making unusual efforts to ensure students learn as much physics as possible, even with all the inconveniences, by offering us the most flexibility and accessibility.”
Everyone in the clinic, whether they’re teachers or students, is willing to share thoughts with me and help me improve my classwork.—Lisa Li
Emphasizing Peer Collaboration
Assistant Teaching Professor Walter Freeman teaches Physics 211 and strongly emphasizes how important peer instruction is to the course. He wants students to grasp concepts that explain physics’ role in how things work and to understand the difference between science fact and fiction. The class is popular—it’s a required course for engineering and other STEM majors. Along with TAs, the department hires students who have previously taken the class as co-instructors, and there are nearly two dozen this semester. These peer coaches assist in discussion sections, where students can get help working through exercises. The department has also extended its online offerings beyond Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom, boosting its social media presence with Discord, Slack and WeChat, which is popular among Chinese students. The idea, Freeman says, is to use platforms that are familiar to the students. The TAs, for instance, have a Slack channel that allows them to talk with Freeman and each other when they’re in the virtual clinic. Freeman posts his video lectures, so they’re available at any time. “My co-instructors are amazing people who do amazing work, with a smile, dedication and skill,” he says. “I cannot say enough good things about these folks.”
Since students are in all sorts of different virtual learning situations, Freeman says it’s crucial to provide instruction and support in the best possible way. “We can’t anticipate what our students’ lives are like, so our highest goal is to support the students who still want to come to us and learn physics. But we also want to provide moral and academic support and not add stress to their lives,” he says. “The physics department is extremely friendly, and we have this culture of camaraderie where we’re all in this together.”
Freeman, for example, hired Ruohan Xu ’23, a student in his Physics 211 class, as a peer coach to help Chinese students who are now back home make the transition from residential to online classes. Xu, a mechanical engineering major, is a natural for this work. “Helping others is my passion,” says Xu, who set up a channel on a Chinese video platform, where he uploads videos of lectures and recitations. He also serves as a liaison, collecting questions and helping students if they have problems submitting homework or experience other technical issues. “They will let me know, and I will find a solution for them,” says Xu, who stayed in Syracuse.
Giving Guidance in Zoom Rooms
Physics doctoral candidate Kenneth Ratliff had little knowledge of Zoom until he attended a workshop in early March and a researcher suggested they follow up with each other in a Zoom meeting. Now it’s an integral part of his teaching in the virtual world. “I’ve had to learn some new technology, but I’m still teaching the same material,” he says. “I’ve found it rewarding to learn all of that. It also should serve me well further down the line.”
Ratliff, who specializes in theoretical physics, is a TA in General Physics II: Electromagnetism (Physics 212) and serves as a host in the Virtual Physics Clinic on Friday afternoons. He says tutoring students online requires adjustments, such as going back and forth with screen sharing. Sometimes, he says, it just comes down to efficiency and what’s the best approach for imparting information. Ratliff offers a number of comparisons between working online and in-person with students and says the experience has also reinforced his belief that group-based learning is much more effective and engaging for students than the lecture format. “It’s forced me to think about things that I did sort of instinctually while teaching and how I can try to adapt that to the virtual realm,” says Ratliff, one of this year’s recipients of an Outstanding TA Award from the Graduate School .
One major difference is being able to read the room. In the in-person clinic or classroom, teachers can pick up facial expressions and other body-language cues as to whether students understand an explanation. That’s not so easy in a Zoom meeting, Ratliff says, especially when students have their video feed off and go audio only. He prefers to watch a student work on a problem. When an error is made, he can ask their thought process and guide them back on track, rather than leading them through the problem from start to finish. “It’s a more instructive experience for a student than having me do it the right way and not give them the opportunity to make a mistake,” he says. “The way written help is requested and delivered in the virtual clinic has forced me to be more conscientious about making the student do their own work.”
Working Through It All
Whether in person or online, Kalhaku McLester is thankful the Physics Clinic is still going strong. While he prefers in-person collaboration to “hanging out with a bunch of floating heads,” he appreciates the sense of community. “Having other students in the clinic is a big help because it reassures you that you’re not the only one struggling through this change,” he says. “It’s just nice to know you’re not in this alone.”
Amid all the changes, Ross emphasizes the benefits of virtual interaction, especially for those who may be isolated from others. “It lends some normalcy to what we’re doing because it gives TAs and students that ability to interact with each other,” she says.
As the pandemic continues, Ross believes the faculty’s innovation and flexibility will prove beneficial. “Our students are really resilient and handling this well, and most of our faculty have tried to keep their courses as normal as possible,” says Ross, who is teaching General Physics II for Renée Crown University Honors students and physics majors this semester. She records live video lectures and then posts them, giving students the option of watching live or viewing later. She also sets up virtual one-on-one meetings with them. “I think a lot of our students have appreciated the consistency we’ve tried to provide for them,” Ross says.
Freeman agrees and, amid the changes in everyone’s lives, shares a comment from an online conversation he had with bioengineering major Kiersten Edwards ’23. Predicting a newspaper headline in the future, she offered this: “Staying six feet apart brought humanity closer together.”